Thursday, 2 October 2008

The Ten Commandments

There are (at least) two ways of looking at the 'rules' of Christianity, which include those we inherited direct from the Old Testament. Despite all the dangers of legalism, the first is to see them as rules to be obeyed. Now, there is something in this of course. But I am more interested in the alternative. This is to see the 'rules' like the ten commandments as the expressions, very practical expressions at that, of our life together, and of the kind of (Christian) community we wish to be. In the case of the ten commandments, lying and stealing will not lead us into the kind of mutuality that the gospel calls us to. This line of thinking makes context important and does not ignore the place of personal character and virtue. This kind of thinking is compatible with the idea of revelation, but not the kind of theology that thinks the 'rules' just dropped out of heaven.

I am persuaded that this is exactly how the 'rules' function in the church. However, I am a little suspicious all the same. Following this line of thought, it could be a little too easy to dismiss the 'rules' and start again. That is, it would be possible for someone to say that they understand the kind of community we are independent of the existing 'rules'. Under the pretext of changing contexts, they could then rewrite the 'rules' to suit their particular understanding of the Christian community. We should remember, however, that the 'rules' are an expression of the community, so therefore a good way of understanding what it means to be Christian community is to start with the 'rules' and follow them back to the kind of community that produced them in the first place. I think there is a great deal to be said for the latter methodology in becoming Christian, despite my utter abhorrence of legalism.

However, I still think the 'rules' are an expression of the community, and therefore, once members have lived in that community from the inside, and followed the rules backwards (so to speak) to that community, it is possible for the 'rules' to be modified by the community.
The good life is not simply one in which certain rules are kept - this is always at best a shorthand for the results of life together in the Body. The good life is one in which we have learned how to be for each other, and in so being to live fully as ourselves. If lying, killing, adultery, greed and so on are sinful, it is because we couldn't imagine a community , such as the Body of Christ is meant to be, in which things like this went unchallenged. (Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, p. 110)

[Pentecost 21(A), Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20]


  1. So how would you define sin within this context of rules?

  2. Good comment.

    Sin is that which makes us, and expresses, that which we are not meant to be, personally and communally. Sin, and the humanity we become through sinning, is the obverse of what we see in Jesus and his life.

  3. So in this sense we are not talking about individual "sins" but then I must confess I do not think St.Paul or Jesus ever really talked about individual sins. Sin is actually something deeper that defines a person?

    So the choice we are given is not so much do I steal that apple or not. It is more does Sin define who I am or does being part of the Body of Christ?

    At the end of the day the question about the apple actually doesn't come into it?

  4. Sin can still be about individual contraventions of the 'rules'. It is this strange thing about the human person where our actions both express who we are and also determine our inner consistency. The more we do something, the more the habit of sin/righteousness is formed.

    But, yes, following the theology 'the rules' aren't just about the rules, and so therefore sin is not just about the rules either. The deeper question is who we are, the kind of community we are and what is consistent with that as a community and individuals.

    But I like this idea of whether we are defined by sin or by our membership 'in Christ'. This might perhaps be touching on Original Sin, a perceptive and necessary doctrine which is not about individual contraventions of 'the rules' but the imperfection of the human person right through everything we are, requiring the 'global' grace of Christ.

    Do a post on this on your blog and I'll do a link.

  5. Well I think being defined by sin or by membership 'in Christ', is what St.Paul was talking about in Romans when he was discussing Adam and Jesus. And yes this does lead us to the doctrine of Original Sin.

    If I do a blog on it will have to fit in around December sometime!

  6. Hi Warren, just letting you know I've got a basic blog working from here to be published on the 5th of February.